The following post was written by Gap Year Fellow Natalie Barth.

My gap year got off to a rough start. I struggled with food poisoning for around 2-3 weeks and had to leave my first placement after going to the hospital. I am now in the Guanacaste province working for an organization called CEPIA. The main purpose of the organization is to improve the quality of life for families in the impoverished communities of the Guanacaste province, with a primary focus on women and children. During the month that I have been in Costa Rica, I have often been searching for happiness.

I am in one of the happiest countries in the world and I am somehow struggling to stay happy. I have been trying to understand why I feel this way, and it often cannot be explained with one reason. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged by everything around me, especially when it is so drastically different then everything I have ever known. The Tropical Storm Nate hit Costa Rica incredibly hard last week. The house that I am staying in didn’t have power for three days. The village of Brasilito flooded, with roads turning into rivers. Hundreds of trees fell, destroying power lines and blocking roads. People were stuck without homes due to flooding and erosion. It was beyond terrifying to watch the catastrophe unfolding right in front of me. It is another level of devastation. The people that I work with already have very little, and to watch them lose the small amount they had in their possession was horrifying.

I had difficulty processing just how many people were affected by the storm in such a major way. One lady came into CEPIA pleading for help for her neighbor, who is wheelchair-bound and was rescued from his home when the water had reached his neck, leaving him gasping for air. Thousands of people lost their homes and all of their clothing and possessions. They didn’t have electricity or access to clean drinking water or food. Many came to CEPIA in need of help, often with a smile on their face and light in their eyes. Despite all they had been through and all they had lost, they were still happy.

There are lot of aspects of this world that humans have no control over. We cannot control the path of a hurricane. We cannot control what others say or do. We cannot control the outcome of the decisions we make, and we can’t control what happened to us in the past. Focusing on what we can control is what allows us to live our life to the best of our ability. We can control how we respond to negative situations. We can control how we choose to act in the face of opposition. Although we cannot control the behavior of others, we can choose to surround ourselves with people that allow us to thrive.

Searching for happiness will only leave me frustrated and often disappointed. If I think of happiness as a destination that I need to reach, it will be impossible to be content with where I am in this moment. I am learning how to just be happy. I am happy because I live in a country where the sunset illuminates the entire sky with the colors of fire and the ocean is a shade of blue I have only ever seen in my dreams. I am happy because this journey is changing me and challenging me, and both aspects are absolutely necessary. I am happy because every day I get to walk into a classroom full of 30 laughing children, all wanting to share their love with me. I am happy because I will return to UNC next year with a love for this world and a passion for volunteering, not to mention a fresh perspective and an influx of gratitude. I am happy because I have control over how I respond to every situation that I am faced with.

It is often discouraging to see the reality of the situation here. I am confident that I will not change the world, but I might as well try to make a difference by sharing compassion and love with everyone I meet. I am consistently working on doing this in the way that I see to be most successful – not only by using good intentions, but by carrying out action that is useful to people who are in need. I have been doing this by delivering packages full of food and basic necessities, sorting through clothes to help people who lost everything, and trying in every way possible to ameliorate the lives of those affected. Working on this means working on my personal flaws as well. Focusing on wasting less time and making every moment count is extremely difficult, especially when I am in a foreign country by myself. When people look at me, I want them to see love. Love bursting from every seam of my soul, a passion for life that cannot be explained using words. I want to be a force for positive change, kindling the fire lying in the depths of peoples’ souls, creating a hunger for peace and equality that will not be subdued until it is completely satisfied. I want to stand strong in the face of opposition and teach others just how lovely it is to be free of the chains that hold us back from reaching our wildest dreams.